Above image: Artisans viewing the Rohi exhibition. Photo Courtesy of Khamir.
Whilst I was in Kutch, I managed to see two excellent exhibitions at Khamir, a resource centre for the support and promotion of crafts in Kutch. Khamir’s serene and beautifully architectured campus which reflects the traditional buildings and village layouts of Kutch is situated at Kukma village 15 km from Bhuj city. As well as exhibitions on the local arts of Kutch which are easily accessible to the artisans involved as well as visitors and tourists, Khamir runs documentation and research projects, works with designers to create new craft based products and facilitates trade.
The name of the current exhibition ‘Rohi’ comes from the sturdy, smooth and sacred stone slab that the leather artisans use as a pivot for their work. It is named after the holy leather artisan San Rohidas. The exhibition tells the story of the Meghwar community of Kutch, and their leather craft through displays of leather products and tools, illustrations, text and an informative film in which we hear from the artisans themselves.
The history and origins of the Meghwars of Kutch are varied and complex. In Kutch, many Meghwars practice weaving and embroidery as well as leather craft. Traditionally low caste Hindus – Dalits or Harijans, they have experienced a long history of oppression. Leather artisans, who also took part in the tanning process, in particular were forced to live on the outskirts of the village as their craft was viewed as unclean and polluting.
Despite this, there was a strong, long-lasting relationship between leather artisans and their local clients based on haatar, a bartering system. The Meghwar leather artisans made sturdy shoes and decorative adornment for cattle for the Maldharis – pastoralists in Kutch (and Sindh in Pakistan), from the leather hides which the Maldharis would provide when an animal died. For agrarian communities, the Patels and Ahirs, leather artisans made rope for the bull ploughs.
- Thorni is a distinctive characteristic of Kutchi leather work. It involves interlacing, stitching and cutting colourful threads to make a pile-like border. Particularly popular among women thorni borders were mainly done for special occasions.
- Kachchha dhaga silai involves raw yarn dhaga being polished with layers of bees wax and twisted to make thick, strong cords for stitching overlapping pieces of leather together. Various stitching patterns were used for embellishment.
- Phoodi, Rivets and nails were used to attach the sole to avoid stitching, and is a surface ornamentation mainly practiced in East Kutch. It was particularly popular among Rabari, Durbar and Gadhvi communities.
- Zari, fine strips of silver were used for embroidery stitches on leather in the Sindh region. This technique was used for special occasions such as weddings. Fine detailing and intricacy were especially valued by the Banni grasslands pastoralists, such as Mutwas, Haleputras, Hingorjans and Jats.
- Guthai, or braiding involves twisting and braiding leather strings to make much stronger cords to hold heavy objects.
From the 1980s onwards, as cheaper mass-produced products became available the leather artisans began to lose their local clients. At this time Government organisation Gujari helped significantly in positioning the leather crafts in new markets across India. Then after the devastating earthquake in 2001, the rehabilitation efforts by NGOs and aid organisations involved further support with marketing and design to help rebuild livelihoods for many of Kutch’s craftspeople including leather artisans. Khamir are one of these organisations, and produce contemporary leather products such as strong leather bags with the thori border, lined with block-printed fabric, shoes and accessories.
Now new tools have been adopted to keep up with larger demands. The Meghwars are also no longer involved in the tanning process, they buy the ready-processed leather from the market. One artisan says that, ironically –
‘We gave up tanning because of untouchability, as simple as that. Today, that work is being undertaken by those very people who turned their nose up at us, because they found a way to make money out of it’
Today, caste-based discrimination has all but ended and the leather artisans have increased economic independence and social respectability. While many of the young generation are more interested in office and factory work, many entrepreneurial craftspeople are working hard to keep up with the demands of the market. The continuously growing interest in the handmade, and increasing numbers of visitors to Kutch makes for a positive future for the craft. And as the exhibition catalogue concludes, the leather artisans can ‘hold on to what is dear to them – their skills, creativity and love of leather’.
For more information on the exhibition and the leather craft of Kutch, read the online exhibition catalogue, where you can also see a trailer of the film.
The exhibition will run until the 15th March 2016.